War of 1812: "Pakenham Gave the Word to Advance"

Cropped view of an engraving recolored in light greyscale tones shows General Jackson on a horse with American soldiers fighting the British in the background.

Serving as a junior officer, Captain George R. Gleig joined the British Army in 1813 and fought Napoleon's troops in Spain. Then, as hostilities temporarily ceased in Europe in 1814, Gleig crossed the Atlantic Ocean with Ross's troops and took part in the Chesapeake Campaign. By the end of 1814, he was near New Orleans, Louisiana, with the British Army attempting to capture that important trading city. 

The following account appears in Gleig's book "The Campaigns of the British Army at Washington and New Orleans, 1814-1815" from Chapter 22 and part of Chapter 23. He describes the British military movements at the beginning January 1815 and the main assault, known as the Battle of New Orleans, which took place on January 8. The battle ended with a British defeat and was the last large battle of the War of 1812.


But the morning of the 1st of January chanced to be peculiarly gloomy. A thick haze obscured for a long time the rays of the sun, nor could objects be discerned with any accuracy till a late hour.

But at length the mist gave way, and the American camp was fully exposed to view. Being at this time only three hundred yards distant, we could perceive all that was going forward with great exactness. The different regiments were upon parade; and being dressed in holiday suits, presented really a fine appearance. Mounted officers were riding backwards and forwards through the, ranks, bands were playing, and colours floating in the air; in a word, all seemed jollity and gala; when suddenly our batteries opened, and the face of affairs was instantly changed. The ranks were broken; the different corps dispersing, fled in all directions, whilst the utmost terror and disorder appeared to prevail. Instead of nicely-dressed lines, nothing but confused crowds could now be observed; nor was it without much difficulty that order was finally restored. Oh, that we had charged at that instant!

Whilst this consternation prevailed among the infantry, their artillery remained silent; but as soon as the former rallied, they also recovered confidence, and answered our salute with great rapidity and precision. A heavy cannonade quickly commenced on both sides, and continued during the whole of the day; till, towards evening, our ammunition began to fail, and our fire in consequence to slacken. The fire of the Americans, on the other hand, was redoubled: landing a number of guns from the flotilla, they increased their artillery to a prodigious amount; and directing at the same time the whole force of their cannon on the opposite bank against the flank of our batteries, they soon convinced us that all endeavours to surpass them in this mode of fighting would be useless. Once more, therefore, were we obliged to retire, leaving our heavy guns to their fate; but as no attempt was made by the Americans to secure them, working parties were again sent out after dark, and such as had not been destroyed were removed.

Of the fatigue undergone during these operations by the whole army, from the General down to the meanest sentinel, it would be difficult to form an adequate conception. For two whole nights and days not a man had closed an eye, except such as were cool enough to sleep amidst showers of cannon-ball; and during the day scarcely a moment had been allowed in which we were able so much as to break our fast. We retired, therefore, not only baffled and disappointed, but in some degree disheartened and discontented. All our plans had as yet proved abortive; even this, upon which so much reliance had been placed, was found to be of no avail; and it must be confessed that something like murmuring began to be heard through the camp. And, in truth, if ever an army might be permitted to murmur, it was this. In landing they had borne great hardships, not only without repining, but with cheerfulness; their hopes had been excited by false reports, as to the practicability of the attempt in which they were embarked; and now they found themselves entangled amidst difficulties from which there appeared to be no escape, except by victory. In their attempts upon the enemy’s line, however, they had been twice foiled; in artillery they perceived themselves to be so greatly overmatched, that their own could hardly assist them; their provisions, being derived wholly from the fleet, were both scanty and coarse; and their rest was continually broken. For not only did the canon and mortars from the main of the enemy’s position play unremittingly upon them both by day and night, but they were likewise exposed to a deadly fire from the opposite bank of the river, where no less than eighteen pieces of artillery were now mounted, and swept the entire line of our encampment. Besides all this, to undertake the duty of a piquet was as dangerous as to go into action. Parties of American sharpshooters harassed and disturbed those appointed to that service from the time they took possession of their post till they were relieved; whilst to light fires at night was impossible, because they served but as certain marks for the enemy’s gunners. I repeat, therefore, that a little murmuring could not be wondered at. Be it observed, however, that these were not the murmurs of men anxious to escape from a disagreeable situation by any means. On the contrary, they resembled rather the growling of a chained dog, when he sees his adversary and cannot reach him; for in all their complaints, no man ever hinted at a retreat, whilst all were eager to bring matters to the issue of a battle, at any sacrifice of loves.

Nor was our gallant leader less anxious to fight than his followers. To fight upon something like equal terms was, however, his wish; and for this purpose a new scheme was invented, worthy, for its boldness, of the school in which Sir Edward [Pakenham] had studied his profession. It was determined to divide the army, to send part across the river, who should seize the enemy’s guns, and turn them on themselves; whilst the remainder should at time make a general assault along the whole entrenchment. But before this plan could be put into execution, it would be necessary to cut a canal across the entire neck of land from the Bayo de Catiline to the river, of sufficient width and depth to admit of boats being brought up from the lake. Upon this arduous undertaking were the troops immediately employed. Being divided into four companies, they laboured by turns, day and night; one party relieving another after a stated number of hours, in such order as that the work should never be entirely deserted. The fatigue undergone during the prosecution of this attempt no words can sufficiently describe; yet it was pursued without repining, and at length, by unremitting exertions, they succeeded in effecting their purpose by the 6th of January.

Whilst these things were going on, and men’s minds were anxiously turned towards approaching events, fresh spirit was given to the army by the unexpected arrival of Major-General Lambert, with the 7th and 43rd; two fine battalions, mustering each 800 effective men. By this reinforcement, together with the addition of a body of sailors and marines from the fleet, our numbers amounted now to little short of 6000 men; a force which, in almost any other quarter of America, would have been irresistible. Of the numbers of the enemy, again, various reports were in circulation; some stating them at 20,000, others at 30,000; but I believe that I come nearer the truth when I suppose their whole force to have comprised 12,000 men of all arms. It is, at least, certain that they exceeded us in numbers as much as they did in resources; and that scarcely an hour passed which did not bring in new levies to their camp.

The canal, as I have stated, being finished on the 6th, it was resolved to lose no time in making use of it. Boats were accordingly ordered up for the transportation of 1400 men; and Colonel Thornton, with the 85th regiment, the marines, and a party of sailors, was appointed to cross the river. But a number of untoward accidents occurred, to spoil a plan of operations as accurately laid down as any in the course of the war. The soil through which the canal was dug being soft, part of the bank gave way, and, choking up the channel, prevented the heaviest of the boats from getting forward. These again blocked up the passage, so that none of those which were behind could proceed; and thus, instead of a flotilla for the accommodation of 1400 men, only a number of boats sufficient to contain 350 was enabled to reach their destination. Even these did not arrive at the time appointed. According to the preconcerted plan, Colonel Thornton’s detachment was to cross the river immediately after dark. They were to push forward, so as to carry all the batteries, and point the guns before daylight; when, on the throwing up of a rocket, they were to commence firing upon the enemy’s line, which at the same moment was to be attacked by the main off our army.

In this manner was one part of the force to act, whilst the rest thus appointed:—Dividing his troops into three columns, Sir Edward directed that General Keane, at the head of the 95th, the light companies of the 21st, 4th, and 44th, together with the two black corps, should make a demonstration, or sham attack, upon the right; that General Gibbs, with the 4th, 21st, 44th, and 93rd, should force the enemy’s left, whilst General Lambert, with the 7th and 43rd, remained in reserve, ready to act as circumstances might require. But in storming an entrenched position, something more than bare courage is required. Scaling ladders and fascines had, therefore, been prepared, with which to fill up the ditch and mount the wall; and since to carry these a service of danger, requiring a corps well worthy of dependence, the 44th was for that purpose selected, as a regiment of sufficient numerical strength, and already accustomed to American warfare. Thus were all things arranged on the night the 7th, for the 8th was fixed upon as the day decisive of the fate of New Orleans.

Whilst the rest of the army lay down to sleep till they should be roused up to fight, Colonel Thornton, with the 85th, and a corps of marines and seamen, amounting in all to 1400 men, moved down to the brink of the river. As yet, however, no boats had arrived; hour after hour elapsed before they came; and when they did come, the misfortunes which I have stated above were discovered, for out of all that had been ordered up, only a few made their appearance. Still it was absolutely necessary that this part of the plan should be carried into execution. Dismissing, therefore, the rest of his followers, the Colonel put himself at the head of his own regiment, about fifty seamen, and as many marines, and with this small force, consisting of no more than 340 men, pushed off. But, unfortunately, the loss of time nothing could repair. Instead of reaching the opposite bank at latest by midnight, dawn was beginning to appear before the boats quitted the canal. It was in vain that they rowed on in perfect silence, and with oars muffled, gaining the point of debarkation without being perceived. It was in vain that they made good their landing and formed upon the beach, without opposition or alarm; day had already broke, and the signal-rocket was seen in the air, while they were yet four miles from the batteries, which ought hours ago to have been taken.

In the mean time, the main body armed and moved forward some way in front of the piquets. There they stood waiting for daylight, and listening with the greatest anxiety for the firing which ought now to be heard on the opposite bank. But their attention was exerted in vain, and day dawned upon them long before they desired its appearance. Nor was Sir Edward Pakenham disappointed in this part of his plan alone. Instead of perceiving everything in readiness for the assault, he saw his troops in battle array, but not a ladder or fascine upon the field. The 44th, which was appointed to carry them, had either misunderstood or neglected their orders; and now headed the column of attack, without any means being provided for crossing the enemy’s ditch or scaling his rampart.

The indignation of our brave leader on this occasion may be imagined, but cannot be described. Galloping towards Colonel Mullens, who led the 44th, he commanded him instantly to return with his regiment for the ladders, but the opportunity of planting them was lost, and though they were brought up, it was only to be scattered over the field by the frightened bearers. For our troops were by this time visible to the enemy. A dreadful fire was accordingly opened upon them, and they were mowed down by hundreds, while they stood waiting for orders.

Seeing that all his well-laid plans were frustrated, Pakenham gave the word to advance, and the other regiments, leaving the 44th with the ladders and fascines behind them, rushed on to the assault. On the left, a detachment under Colonel Rennie, of the 21st regiment, stormed a three-gun battery, and took it. Here they remained for some time in expectation of support; but none arriving, and a strong column of the enemy forming for its recovery, they determined to anticipate the attack, and pushed on. The battery which they had taken was in advance of the body of the works, being cut off from it by a ditch, across which only a single plank was thrown. Along this plank did these brave men attempt to pass; but being opposed by overpowering numbers, they were repulsed; and the Americans, in turn, forcing their way into the battery, at length succeeded in recapturing it with immense slaughter. On the right, again, the 21st and 4th, supported by the 93rd, though thrown into some confusion by the enemy’s fire, pushed on with desperate gallantry to the ditch; but to scale the parapet without ladders was a work of no slight difficulty. Some few, indeed, by mounting one upon another’s shoulders, succeeded in entering the works, but these were speedily overpowered, most of them killed, and the rest taken; whilst as many as stood without were exposed to a sweeping fire, which cut them down by whole companies. It was in vain that the most obstinate courage was displayed. They fell by the hands of men whom they absolutely did not see; for the Americans, without so much as lifting their faces above the rampart, swung their firelocks by one arm over the wall, and discharged them directly upon their heads. The whole of the guns likewise, from the opposite bank, kept up a well-directed and deadly cannonade upon their flank; and thus were they destroyed without an opportunity being given of displaying their valour, or obtaining so much as revenge.

Sir Edward saw how things were going, and did all that a general could do to rally his broken troops. Riding towards the 44th, which had returned to the ground, but in great disorder, he called out for Colonel Mullens to advance; but that officer disappeared, and was not to be found. He therefore prepared to lead them on himself, and had put himself at their head for that purpose, when he received a slight wound in the knee from a musket-ball, which killed his horse. Mounting another, he again headed the 44th, when a second ball took effect more fatally, and he dropped lifeless into the arms of his aide-de-camp.

Nor were Generals Gibbs and Keane inactive. Riding through the ranks, they strove by all means to encourage the assailants and recall the fugitives; till at length both were wounded, and borne off the field. All was now confusion and dismay. Without leaders, ignorant of what was to be done, the troops first halted and then began to retire; till finally the retreat was changed into a flight, and they quitted the ground in the utmost disorder. But the retreat was covered in gallant style by the reserve. Making a forward motion, the 7th and 43rd presented the appearance of a renewed attack; by which the enemy were so much awed, that they did not venture beyond their lines in pursuit of the fugitives.

Whilst affairs were thus disastrously conducted in this quarter, the party under Colonel Thornton had gained the landing-place. On stepping ashore, the first thing they beheld was a rocket thrown up as a signal that the battle was begun. This unwelcome sight added wings to their speed. Forming in one little column, and pushing forward a single company as an advanced guard, they hastened on, and in half an hour reached a canal, along the opposite bank of which a detachment of Americans was drawn up. To dislodge them was the work of a moment a boat, with a carronade in her bow, got upon their flank, gave them a single discharge of grape, whilst the advanced guard extended its ranks, and approached at double-quick time. But they scarcely waited till the latter were within range, when, firing a volley, they fled in confusion. This, however, was only an outpost: the main body was some way in rear, and amounted to no fewer than 1500 men.

It was not long, however, before they likewise presented themselves. Like their countrymen on the other side, they were strongly entrenched, a thick parapet with a ditch covering their front; whilst a battery upon their left swept the whole position, and two field-pieces commanded the road. Of artillery the assailants possessed not a single piece, nor any means beyond what nature supplied of scaling the rampart. Yet nothing daunted by the obstacles before them, or by the immense odds to which they were opposed, dispositions for an immediate attack were made. The 85th, extending its files, stretched across the entire line of the enemy; the sailors in column prepared to storm the battery, whilst the marines remained some little way in rear of the centre as a reserve.

These arrangements being completed, the bugle sounded, and our troops advanced. The sailors raising a shout, rushed forward, but were met by so heavy a discharge of grape and canister that for an instant they paused. Recovering themselves, however, they again pushed on; and the 85th dashing forward to their aid, they received a heavy fire of musketry, and endeavoured to charge. A smart firing was now for a few minutes kept up on both sides, but our people had no time to waste in distant fighting, and accordingly hurried on to storm the works, upon which a panic seized the Americans, they lost their order, and fled, leaving us in possession of their tents and of eighteen pieces of cannon.

In this affair our loss amounted to only three men killed and about forty wounded, among the latter of whom was Colonel Thornton. Nor could the loss on the part of the enemy greatly exceed our own. Had they stood firm, indeed, it is hardly conceivable that so small a force could have wrested an entrenched position from numbers so superior; at least it could not have been done without much bloodshed. But they were completely surprised. An attack on this side was a circumstance of which they had not dreamed; and when men are assaulted in a point which they deem beyond the reach of danger, it is well known that they defend themselves with less vigour than where such an event was anticipated.

When in the act of storming these lines the word was passed through our ranks that all had gone well on the opposite bank. This naturally added to the vigour of the assault; but we had not followed our flying enemy above two miles when we were commanded to halt. The real state of the case had now reached us, and the same messenger who brought the melancholy news brought likewise an order to return.

The place where we halted was in rear of a canal, across which was thrown a wooden bridge, furnishing apparently the only means of passing. At the opposite end of this bridge stood a collection of wooden cottages and one chateau of some size. Here a company was stationed to serve the double purpose of a piquet and a rear-guard; whilst the main body, having rested for half an hour, began their march towards the point where they had landed.

As soon as the column had got sufficiently on their way the piquet likewise prepared to follow. But in doing so it was evident that some risk must be run. The enemy having rallied, began again to show a front; that is to say, parties of sixty or a hundred men approached to reconnoitre. These, however, must be deceived, otherwise a pursuit might be commenced, and the re-embarkation of the whole corps hindered or prevented. It so happened that the piquet in question was this day under my command; as soon, therefore, as I received information that the main body had commenced its retreat, I formed my men, and made a show of advancing. The Americans perceiving this, fled; when, wheeling about, we set fire to the chateau, and under cover of the smoke destroyed the bridge and retreated. Making all haste towards the rear, we overtook our comrades just as they had begun to embark; when the little corps being once more united, entered their boats, and reached the opposite bank without molestation.

As soon as the whole army was re-united, and the broken regiments had recovered their order, a flag of truce was dispatched with proposals for the burial of the dead. To accomplish this end a truce of two days was agreed upon, and parties were immediately sent out to collect and bury their fallen comrades. Prompted by curiosity, I mounted my horse and rode to the front; but of all the sights I ever witnessed, that which met me there was beyond comparison the most shocking and the most humiliating. Within the narrow compass of a few hundred yards were gathered together nearly a thousand bodies, all of them arrayed in British uniforms. Not a single American was among them; all were English; and they were thrown by dozens into shallow holes, scarcely deep enough to furnish them with a slight covering of earth. Nor was this all. An American officer stood by smoking a cigar, and apparently counting the slain with a look of savage exultation, and repeating over and over to each individual that approached him, that their loss amounted only, to eight men killed and fourteen wounded.

I confess that when I beheld the scene I hung down my head, half in sorrow and half in anger. With my officious informant I had every inclination to pick a quarrel; but he was on duty, and an armistice existed, both of which forbade the measure. I could not, however, stand by and repress my choler, and since to give it vent would have subjected me to more serious inconvenience than a mere duel, I turned my horse’s head and galloped back to the camp.

But the change of expression visible there in every countenance no language can portray. Only twenty hours ago, and all was life and animation; wherever you went you were enlivened by the sound of merriment and raillery; whilst the expected attack was mentioned in terms indicative not only of sanguine hope, but, of the most perfect confidence as to its result. Now gloom and discontent everywhere prevailed. Disappointment, grief, indignation, and rage, succeeded each other in all bosoms; nay, so completely were the troops overwhelmed by a sense of disgrace, that for awhile they retained their sorrow without so much as hinting at its cause. Nor was this dejection occasioned wholly by the consciousness of laurels tarnished. The loss of comrades was to the full as afflicting as the loss of honour; for out of more than 5000 men brought on this side into the field, no fewer than 1500 had fallen. Among these were two generals (for Gibbs survived his wound but a few hours), and many officers of courage and ability; besides which, hardly an individual survived who had not to mourn the loss of some particular and well-known companion.

Yet it is most certain that amidst all this variety of conflicting passions no feeling bordering upon despair or even terror found room. Even among the private soldiers no fear was experienced; for if you attempted to converse with them on the subject of the late defeat, they would end with a bitter curse upon those to whose misconduct they attributed their losses, and refer you to the future, when they hoped for an opportunity of revenge. To the Americans they would allow no credit, laying the entire blame of the failure upon certain individuals among themselves; and so great was the indignation expressed against one corps, that the soldiers of other regiments would hardly exchange words with those who chanced to wear that uniform. Though deeply afflicted, therefore, we were by no means disheartened, and even, yet anticipated, with an eagerness far exceeding what was felt before, a renewal of the combat.

But General Lambert, on whom the chief command had devolved, very prudently determined not to risk the safety of his army by another attempt upon works evidently so much beyond their strength. He considered, and considered justly, that his chances of success were in every respect lessened by the late repulse. In the first place, an extraordinary degree of confidence was given to the enemy; in the next place, the only feasible plan of attack having been already tried, they would be more on their guard to prevent its being again put in execution; and lastly, his own force was greatly diminished in numbers, whilst theirs continued every day to increase. Besides, it would be casting all upon the hazard of a die. If again defeated, nothing could save our army from destruction, because unless it retreated in force no retreat could be effected. A retreat, therefore, whilst yet the measure appeared practicable, was resolved upon, and towards that end were all our future operations directed.



The Campaigns of the British Army at Washington and New Orleans, 1814-1815, by G.R. Gleig, new edition published in 1879. Chapters 22-23.

Related Battles

Louisiana | January 8, 1815
Result: United States Victory
Estimated Casualties
United States
United Kingdom